In a recent presentation at the Kennan Institute, Julie DaVanzo, Senior Economist and Director, Population Matters Program, RAND, discussed the devastating demographic situation in Russia. She noted that researchers are eagerly awaiting the pending results of the latest Russian census (the first of the post-communist era), which are expected to show that the country is experiencing a sharp decline in population. DaVanzo explained the nature and extent of the population decline, highlighting the recent trends in Russian fertility, mortality, and immigration rates, and offered several policy recommendations that could help address the problem.

Russian deaths have been increasing over the past four decades and since 1992, have outnumbered Russian births. This difference, combined with declining rates of immigration, lower fertility rates and higher mortality rates, has led researchers to predict that Russia's population could fall from its 2000 level of 145 million to 142 million by 2010. DaVanzo explained that if Russia were to continue at its current rate of decrease, projections by the U.S. Census Bureau imply that by 2050 it would have a population of 127 million, a loss of nearly 18 million people over 50 years (and she noted that some others project an even smaller total population size then). DaVanzo's research also illustrated that although Russia's fertility rate, of 1.2 children per woman, is low (and well below the "replacement" level [2.1 children per woman] that ultimately leads to the stabilization of population size), it is not unusual for the region. While the sad state of Russia's economy may contribute to this low level of fertility, it is not clear that economic improvements will lead to increases in fertility. Data from other Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, showed that economic recovery has not boosted the fertility rates in those countries. Although abortion was once the most common form of birth control for Russian women, recent improvements in the availability and quality of contraception, and the increases in contraceptive use that have resulted, have led to a substantial reduction in the number of abortions performed.

DaVanzo pointed out that Russia is also facing a rising mortality rate, especially among working men, whose life expectancy is lower now than it was in the mid-1960s. Circulatory diseases and external causes (i.e., injury, poisoning, or violence) contributed the most to the rise in mortality rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The social and political upheaval that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union appears to have contributed to the increase in stress-related circulatory diseases that also helped boost mortality rates in the early 1990s. DaVanzo noted that alcohol abuse helps explain the high levels and variations in life expectancy and mortality in Russia and that the data show a strong negative correlation between per capita alcohol consumption and male life expectancy.

DaVanzo stated that the inefficiency of the Russian healthcare system has also affected Russia's mortality rates. Under the old Soviet system, healthcare was originally designed to control infectious diseases, rather than treat more modern "civilization" illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease. There was an emphasis on quantity over quality, which resulted in poorly trained healthcare personnel and inadequate medical facilities. Currently, she continued, there is very little emphasis on preventative care or public health. One particularly disturbing finding showed that the current high death rates come from largely preventable diseases. Because wages for healthcare professionals are so low, many of the more skilled or better educated elect to emigrate to the West.

In conclusion, DaVanzo discussed several broad policy implications from Russia's current demographic situation. As more Russians enter pension ages (60+ for men, 55+ for women) there will be a marked decline in the ratio of working-age adults compared to the rest of the population. Other implications include a large drop in the availability of military-age men, which could affect Russian security policy, and a shrinking youth population, resulting in less need for youth services (educators, schools, etc.). DaVanzo reviewed some of the policy options that Russia could be consider to stem its population decline. She noted that past pro-natalist policies were largely unsuccessful; the anti-alcohol campaign, though successful in reducing alcohol consumption and mortality, was so unpopular that it was abandoned; and policies to increase immigration are likely to be very controversial politically. Policies to reduce mortality are probably more likely to be successful than those to increase fertility, and economic improvements are likely to help improve health and increase life expectancy. Because high Russian death rates are due in large part to poor health behaviors (too much smoking and drinking and unhealthy diets), public health programs could play an important role. Russian and Western leaders must work together to look for ways to help improve the health and life expectancy of the people of Russia.